Me: Is it far? Will it be a long way?
Him: Yes it is about five hours all through the bush.
Me: Ah, for this you have a cutlass? But how will you reach by tomorrow?
Him: We will leave soon when my friends come.
Me: You will walk in the dark? All night?
Him: Yes. I must dig and burn (farming) in the morning, so we walk tonight.
Me: Do you have any food or water to bring with you?
I go to the room I am sharing with a colleague and find a used plastic water bottle. I fill it with water we have drawn from the hand pump in town. The house I'm staying in drinks water from a nearby creek. I give him the bottle. He smiles and nods. He then asks if I still want to learn some of the local language. He starts naming words, which I struggle to jot down phonetically, along with their definitions. He teaches me the words for animals, body parts, and foods. More children join and help him, laughing at my pronunciation, but encouraging me to continue.
My female colleague, with whom I am sharing a room, asks if I want dinner. Dinner is leftover lunch, which was dry rice: white rice, oil, onion, chilies, and canned sardines. As we eat, the three teenage boys who will spend the night walking through thick jungle sit and chat, actively not watching us spoon the rice out of one pot into our mouths. It starts to rain. My colleague tells me that she has told the boys (in local language) not to leave until the rain has stopped. The snakes come out when it rains and if one bites them they could die. This is a very real and legitimate fear from what I have heard. During the FGD these boys also told us about men in the bush who can prey on young people or people walking alone, hurting them or killing them to steal body parts for ritual sacrifice. She teases them, asking if they aren't afraid? I ask too, hoping we can scare them into waiting until morning. I stop eating, knowing that these boys will get whatever we don't eat. They take the pot and our used spoons and dig in hungrily, their spoons making loud scraping sounds as they make sure to get every grain of rice and drop of oil.
Two of the boys want to ask me questions, but are shy, worried I won't understand their English, as they often don't understand mine. The boy I was chatting with earlier asks "Why you so light and I so dark?", I don't understand at first, but my colleague repeats in formal English, I shake my head not sure how to answer. "Why you so fine (this just means nice in Liberia) and I so ugly?" I shake my head again, contradicting his assumption. This boy has never left this small region of Liberia. It is likely that I am among the first white people he has ever spoken to; he doesn't have television or access to visual media. So where did he get the idea that being white is good and attractive and black is bad and ugly?
Then this same boy starts to study. I ask him what he is reading and he shows me the book, he is learning about the war here, World Wars 1, 2 and 3 in local speak. I ask him if he will read it to me, so I can learn too. I have forgotten to ask what grade he is in (at 14). He is in third grade, shaking his head, saying he doesn't want to read. Then he asks my colleague to ask me if I will read it. I start, reading slowly and enunciating, there are still many words he doesn't understand. "She must be white! Girl can read!" I read, showing him the book, pausing at words I suspect he may not know (like faction or dissolve), asking if he knows, explaining what they mean. We finish the chapter and start the review questions, he knows none of the answers. I suggest we go back through the chapter, with him reading so he can find them. Rather than skim for key words as I might do, he flips to the beginning of the chapter and begins to read again. He stumbles over words regularly. The vocabulary is far beyond his reading skills, and is not appropriate for his grade, causing him frustration. When he hits a word he doesn't know, he says the letters aloud: fierce - F-I-E-R-C-E. Sometimes he recognizes the sound of the letters in order and identifies the word, but when he doesn't he stops, looking at me. I try to go slowly, covering up parts of words and asking him what sounds the letters make. He and the boys watching are amazed, no one has ever taught them how to sound out words before. I can't imagine learning to read, and only ever being able to read the words someone has taught you, not being able to learn new ones on your own by sounding them out and identifying parts of words you know, can you?
Eventually I go to bed, leaving the boys on their own, laughing among themselves at my reading skills and teasing each other for being dumb. In the morning I hear from my colleagues that the boys left for home late in the night, when the rain let up, but still in the pitch dark. They are all living with relatives in order to attend school, because there is no school where they are from. But, there is no one to plant their fields at home, so they must go home and burn and plant before the season passes. This food goes to feed the family members still in their original villages, and along with their daily labor, pays the families they stay with for their rooms and school supplies.
I wasn't sure what to conclude from this. Is it a lesson in the potentially negative aspects of sending children away from home to live with alternative caregivers? Is it the burden placed on the shoulders of children when a parent has died? Is it the consequences of a lack of access to education? Is it that this boy has been taught, and internalized, that he is inferior to others? Is the lack of transportation? Lack of access to clean water or even a bottle to hold dirty water during a walk that will take hours? Is it that this boy, still a child, is fluent in his own language, but is only taught in a language he doesn't understand, so he is teased? Is it that there is a 14 year-old in 3rd grade, or that a third grader can't read? Or that, at 14 and in 3rd grade, the likelihood he will study for more than another year or two is unlikely? Or is it that he is surely more educated than his parents, which is an accomplishment?
I'm not sure. But what I can say is that there are people who argue that development doesn't work, that we're getting no where and that it's a waste of money. But I think that (among other things) what those people miss is the impact on individual lives. Every step is an accomplishment, from this boy's desire to study, to his insistence on maintaining his family farm, to his being able to safely move about a county that was once the heart of the war. You can look at the story and feel sad, or you can look at it and see potential and progress. Progress towards education (there is a school where there wasn't one ten years ago), clean water (there is a hand pump in the community, although too far to walk to), he is functionally literate, he has access to land and income, and he wants to learn.
Additionally, when this research went through an ethics review board, I was asked what the benefit for those participating was, weren't we just taking from them and giving nothing in return? I explained that there are people that no one ever asks for their opinion, and no one ever listens to; child protection concerns (abuse, exploitation, violence, and neglect) aren't the issue of the day, and when children experience them, they often bear them in silence, believing it is their lot in life. Sitting together and discussing the things that make them feel unsafe or insecure and hearing that other children face them too, is beneficial, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. This boy was heard, and then later someone encouraged him to change his actions in order to keep himself safe, because he is important, and he did change, even if only a little, even if only for that day.